The landmark visit by the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ibrahim Abdulaziz Al Assaf, to Cyprus on September 11, the first by a top Saudi official, highlights how much the divided island has acquired a strategic role in the Gulf monarchies’ Western projection. Prior to this state visit, the first resident Saudi Arabian ambassador to Cyprus, Khaled bin Mohammed Al Sharif, presented his credentials to the Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades on September 5.
Riyadh’s growing interest in Cyprus is driven by a combination of geopolitical dimensions: among them, gas, investments, tourism and maritime security. Most of all, for the Gulf monarchies Cyprus represents the south-eastern gate to the European Union and a viable channel of communication with European institutions: during his counterpart visit’s, the Cypriot Foreign Minister, Nikos Christodoulides, reiterated his government’s commitment to closer EU-Saudi cooperation to address regional challenges.
During the official visit, the Saudi minister of foreign affairs stressed Riyadh’s willingness to develop relations with Nicosia “on all fronts”, focusing initially on tourism and investments: a bilateral Business Forum should be launched as part of an economic diplomacy program. Some preliminary measures, agreements on double taxation and air services, have been implemented.
In terms of Gulf-Cyprus relations, a leading role played by Saudi Arabia can obviously make the difference. However, as often occurs, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), not the kingdom, opened the Gulf monarchies’ recent route to the eastern Mediterranean island, in the framework of their maritime-oriented foreign policy. In 2016 DP World was awarded a twenty-five year concession to operate the multipurpose terminal of Limassol; a new 7000 sq.m. passenger terminal was inaugurated in 2018 to turn Limassol’s port into a cruise hub, and new high tech devices (like a mobile harbour crane) were recently introduced to speed up logistical operations.
This year saw intensified diplomatic relations between the Gulf monarchies and Cyprus. In June 2019 the Emirati Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Shaykh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, travelled to Nicosia to consolidate bilateral relations: the UAE had opened an embassy in 2016. The Cypriot minister for foreign affairs was in Muscat, Oman, in February 2019: that visit was the occasion for signing a Memorandum of Understanding in higher education and science, which included the mutual recognition of degrees and initiatives to foster student exchanges. Construction is another sector of shared interest between Oman and Cyprus, with many Cypriot companies having contributed to building Oman’s infrastructures. In November 2018 the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister of Kuwait, Shaykh Sabah Khaled Al Hamad Al Sabah, met with his Cypriot counterpart in Kuwait City: several memoranda for bilateral cooperation were signed, together with an air service agreement. In April 2019, Qatar celebrated the fifth anniversary of Qatar Airways’ direct services to Cyprus (which currently provides twelve direct flights per week from Larnaca to Doha), with an event in Nicosia also attended by the ambassadors of Kuwait and Oman, plus representatives of the business community.
But dealing with energy in Cyprus necessarily means getting involved in an uncomfortable political debate. During his recent visit to Nicosia, the Saudi foreign minister said the kingdom “supports the legitimacy and sovereignty of Cyprus”, thus apparently siding with the Cypriot government vis-à-vis Turkey. In the official meeting statement, the foreign minister of Cyprus addressed recent developments in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the “aggressive behaviour of Turkey” saying that “the solidarity and support of countries such as Saudi Arabia is indispensable”.
Also, in Saudi Arabia’s view, Cyprus has an invaluable geographical position: located at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, the divided island is a potential linchpin for trade and investments towards the West, just opposite one of the most stable of the choke-points surrounding the Arabian Peninsula, the Suez Canal. Most of all, Cyprus has a history of encounters with the Arab and Muslim world and now is the south-eastern cornerstone of the EU, thus being part of the European market and shared regulations.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies can provide Cyprus with investments, in the framework of the “Gulf visions” for economic diversification, and consolidated expertise in the energy sector, given the discovery of offshore gas fields in Cyprus’ waters. In 2017 Qatar Petroleum and the American Exxon Mobil signed a contract for exploration and production sharing in the Cypriot offshore gas field “Block 10” which entered into force in November 2018 with the start of drilling. In 2018, during President Anastasiades’ historic visit to Saudi Arabia (the first Cypriot president to be invited since 1960), Saudi Aramco expressed interest in doing business in Cyprus’ EEZ, viewed as a stable energy hub with respect to the rest of the Middle Eastern region.
In such a context, Saudi Arabia must find a good balance, on its route to Cyprus, between opportunities and risks. Riyadh and the Gulf monarchies have to be wary of not reproducing and exporting here the conflicting patterns of alignment and counter-alignment that are dividing the Middle East: for instance, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel already support Cyprus’ drilling in its EEZ, while natural gas still remains a matter of contention between Cyprus and Turkey. Perhaps Nicosia can handle this potential “geopolitical trap”, stressing its role as European neighbour of the kingdom and, moreover, as a reliable interlocutor between the Gulf monarchies and Brussels; and Riyadh can commit to the same, viewing Cyprus first of all as a European partner to work with in order to strengthen cross-regional prosperity and security.